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Johanns' thinking misguided, House Committee chairman says

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., says the same farmers must not have attended the 2007 farm bill listening sessions and hearings conducted by USDA and the House Agriculture Committee over the last two years.

Noting that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has quoted frequently from the farm bill forums USDA held across the country in 2005 and early 2006, Peterson said Johanns comments have left him puzzled.

“I don't know who he was listening to because what he says is not what I heard at our sessions,” Peterson told farmers who crowded into a room at the Pine Bluff, Ark., Convention Center Jan. 25 to hear his views on the 2007 farm bill. Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross, both Arkansas Democrats, helped organize the meeting.

Peterson said he has held several meetings with Johanns since he became chairman of the House ag committee in January. “I've let him know I think he's a little misguided in some of his thoughts on the farm bill, and he would be well-advised to try to modify those so we can try to work together.”

He noted that either President Bush or Johanns was expected to announce the administration's farm bill proposals about two weeks after the Jan. 25 meeting. (Johanns actually unveiled the proposal less than a week later on Jan. 31.)

“The president will come forth with a proposal and that is something that will be considered,” he said, “but we're going to write the farm bill.”

The day before Peterson spoke in Pine Bluff, the Congressional Budget Office announced its baseline figures for agriculture. While most observers had expected the baseline to be reduced, Peterson said the actual announcement was “a little worse” than he anticipated.

“The new baseline came in substantially below where it has been,” he said. “This is a projection that's done by CBO, and they're always wrong because they're projecting out what prices are going to be 10 years from now.”

‘Soften’ blow

Peterson said he and other ag committee members have been working with House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., to try to “soften” the blow of the reduced baseline by finding funds from other sources.

“We have saved about $17 billion so far over the life of the 2002 farm bill compared to what was projected to be spent,” said Peterson. “We're the only part of the government that saved money. The farm bill is working exactly like it was designed to work because we went out over the country and that's the message we heard.

“But we've got some other things we want to do, so we've talked to the Budget Committee and to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and they have been receptive to our pleas. What we're trying to do now is build support from our colleagues so we can get the resources we need to write the bill.”

The CBO baseline for commodity program spending for 2007-15, for example, is $41 billion or 29 percent less than it was for the 2002 farm bill. That's because commodity prices for corn, soybeans and wheat have been higher than expected.

Conservation spending is also down 7.5 percent because the Republican-controlled Congress capped some of the conservation programs. “It wasn't Marion (Congressman Berry, who now serves on the Appropriations Committee) who did that, it was the other party,” said Peterson.

“Of course, you also have Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. His program, the Conservation Security Program, was one of those that was capped, and he wants to put more money in that. The wheat guys don't think they got as good a deal in the 2002 farm bill, but, by and large, the farm bill works well.”

Peterson said he also wants to eliminate ad hoc disaster programs — after passing a bill to cover the disasters in 2005-06. He would prefer a permanent disaster program with separate funding to avoid the almost annual battle over providing needed disaster aid to producers.

“CBO has assigned a huge budget number for such a program, so I'm not sure what we can do,” he said. “Under our proposal, if the secretary declared a disaster, he would have a pot of money to distribute without us having to worry whether Congress would pass a disaster bill.”

Energy caution

Hailing from Minnesota, a state which has 18 ethanol plants in operation and a growing number of wind farms, Peterson said he expects a major emphasis on renewable energy legislation in the next farm bill. But he will urge a cautious approach.

“I was serving in the state senate when we passed a bill to help build the first ethanol plant in Minnesota,” he said. “Not long after that, oil dropped to $10 a barrel and a lot of guys went broke.”

Congress and the renewable energy industry will have to walk a fine line between new and traditional markets for grain. “We don't want to hurt the animal industry while corn growers are meeting this new demand for ethanol,” he said. “It's been my experience we can have high grain prices and high livestock prices.”

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